Mississippi Gulf Coast Devastated by Katrina
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Rescuers in Mississippi are searching for survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The state suffered some of the heaviest damage in the region, particularly around Gulfport and Biloxi. Lea Stokes is the spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Ms. LEA STOKES (Spokeswoman, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency): It's devastating, especially what we're hearing about the Gulf Coast. And we know that we have evacuees and Gulf Coast residents who went to several states who want to come home, but it's simply not safe. It's probably going to be several days before they're able to return to the Gulf Coast. We have one major highway that is now open to the Gulf Coast, but it is simply for emergency workers and first responders only. And we're telling people, `If you get on that road, you could be slowing them down from saving someone's life.'
MONTAGNE: When you say `simply not safe,' what exactly is the danger for people, should they come home?
Ms. STOKES: We have flooding absolutely everywhere. There are people still needing to be rescued.
MONTAGNE: Now the very sad thing is that Mississippi, as the governor has said, appears to have dozens of people who have died. So what do you know about that?
Ms. STOKES: We know we have five confirmed deaths, but we do know that total is going to rise, and that's up to the first responders, the search-and-rescue people who are trying to identify people and help people and get to the shelters.
MONTAGNE: At this point in time, this morning, how many people are out there having been evacuated from their homes?
Ms. STOKES: We know that the Gulf Coast population is about 400,000 in our three coastal counties, and, of course, there were mandatory or voluntary evacuations in all of those counties. And then we had some of our other northern-tier counties who also did evacuations, and we had Louisiana residents evacuate. So it's literally in the hundreds of thousand of people who did evacuate, either into Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas, and I'm hearing as far away as Texas and other states, to be safe.
MONTAGNE: Of all the issues that are being dealt with there, what would you say are the biggest that you're dealing with right now today in the short term?
Ms. STOKES: Of course, we have people calling, wanting to know about their homes, and people calling, wanting to know about their family members, and there's no easy answer. We don't have a lot of contact with the coast. We're using satellite communications. There are no phone lines. There are no cell phone towers. Even low-band radio--there's hardly any towers left. So it's a very slow process, having communications and getting things into the area.
MONTAGNE: Could you give us an example of a story that has come in to your office of someone needing to be rescued, to give us a feeling about what people are going through right now?
Ms. STOKES: I can tell you a phone call I took personally last night from a woman in Alabama, and her sister lives in Jackson County, which is on our Gulf Coast, and she wanted to reach her and I tried to explain that we're having a very hard time. And she said she was on the phone with her yesterday and her two nieces, and they were in a mobile home, and the water was coming into the mobile home and the nieces were screaming and crying, and then she lost contact with them. And she has not heard from them since, and that was yesterday morning at some point, and she was simply panicked, of course, and crying on the phone. That is the kind of calls we are getting: people who cannot reach their loved ones and who are scared to death.
MONTAGNE: And you sound pretty tired yourself.
Ms. STOKES: I am exhausted, but--we have to do all we can do.
MONTAGNE: Well, Lea Stokes, good luck to you.
Ms. STOKES: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.
Lea Stokes is a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, and she spoke with us from Jackson, Mississippi.
This is NPR News.